Al-Ittihad ready for AFC Champions League challenge, coach says

UAE Pro League review: Al-Ain and champions Shabab Al-Ahli maintain perfect starts

Holders Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club and Al-Ain maintained 100-percent starts to the season after heavyweight clashes, while Al-Wasl blew up theirs in unfathomable fashion against nine men, throughout ADNOC Pro League’s engrossing Matchweek 4.

Thursday’s sell-out crowd witnessed Al-Ain’s 10 men secure an epic 3-2 victory at shell-shocked Sharjah, courtesy of substitute Jonatas’ fierce clincher. Shabab Al-Ahli, meanwhile, breezed past Al-Wahda 3-1 on Friday, with emergent UAE force Yahya Al-Ghassani impressing former employers.

Saturday’s utterly chaotic second half at Khor Fakkan saw Wasl shockingly drop two points off leading pace. Switzerland striker Haris Seferovic’s first-half brace had sparked a 3-0 lead for the visitors by 14 minutes, but their collapse to 3-3 was completed by resurgent hosts in the 91st minute despite red cards for Uzbekistan midfielder Abdulla Abdullayev and Masoud Sulaiman.

Italy striker Manolo Gabbiadini’s brace earned a 3-0 victory for relieved Al-Nasr at rock-bottom Hatta; Morocco hit man Walid Azaro’s hat-trick proved in vain during Ajman’s 5-3 loss to grateful Ittihad Kalba; and Spanish playmaker Alejandro Pozuelo had a hand in all three goals when Al-Bataeh were downed 3-1 by Frank de Boer’s momentum-building Al-Jazira.

Spain icon Andres Iniesta went close when Emirates Club played out a goalless stalemate at Baniyas.

Here are Arab News’ top picks and a talking point from the latest action.

Player of the week: Al-Ghassani (Shabab Al-Ahli Dubai Club)

There was a poignancy to this breathtaking display from one of the Middle East’s finest.

Al-Ghassani’s first steps in senior professional football were taken with Wahda, after exiting the academy of the then-named Al-Ahli. But despite an undeniable talent, it never truly happened for the winger at Al-Nahyan Stadium from 2018 until January 2021’s move back home.

Only 12 top-flight starts, four goals and five assists were recorded.

Fast forward to the present and Al-Ghassani was a standout performer in last season’s title victory, plus scorer of a brace during August’s agonizing AFC Champions League play-off exit to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Al-Nasr.

A pair in coach Paulo Bento’s impressive UAE debut — a 4-1 thumping of Costa Rica with Paris Saint-Germain’s Keylor Navas between the sticks — augurs much for World Cup 2026 qualifying’s impending kick-off and winter’s Asian Cup.

Al-Ghassani’s punishing pace and flawless technique were showcased for Mu’nas Dabbur’s seventh-minute opener, a clipped assist shredding the visiting defense. A noteworthy maturity, too, for an entertainer approaching his prime at 25 years old.

In tandem with fellow outstanding UAE prospect Harib Abdalla on the opposite flank, Shabab Al-Ahli’s counter-punching approach — they ceded 59-percent possession — made perfect sense.

Wahda’s loss is, emphatically, Shabab Al-Ahli’s gain. It makes the former strong contenders to claim another result in Saturday’s glamour clash at Jazira.

Goal of the week: Gabbiadini (Al-Nasr)

A long-awaited breakout for a beleaguered club and a star addition.

Gabbiadini had suffered alongside his new teammates in a tortured start to this season, which featured three successive league losses. In that time, the summer addition from relegated Sampdoria accrued only one assist, amid opening defeat to Jazira.

The narrative shifted in the Hajar Mountains.

Gabbiadini’s sharp mind and acute skills were present before half-time, breaking the deadlock in this clash of great import.

Nasr’s quick free-kick caused a goal-mouth scramble. The ball eventually made its way toward the 13-times-capped attacker, who met it with a forceful back heel that flew through Hatta goalkeeper Salam Khairi from close range.

Such refinement attracted the Blue Wave to Gabbiadini, following the briefest of summer attachments with Cedric Bakambu prior to joining Galatasaray.

It could yet prove adroit business for a 12th-placed sleeping giant who must awaken from perpetual slumber. Sleepwalk back into bad habits and harsh punishment should await versus Al-Ain on Sunday, before another international break.

Coach of the week: Gerard Zaragoza (Khor Fakkan)

Zaragoza experienced the startling highs and lows of club management, in this unforgettable Khor Fakkan debut.

A promotion from assistant coach was bequeathed by Abdulaziz Al-Anbari’s mid-September exit. That occurred after fitful ADNOC Pro League form, plus landslide ADIB Cup elimination by Kalba.

This change at the helm — whatever its permanence — looked misguided when on-song Wasl raced into an early three-goal lead. A comeback appeared impossible against visitors, surely, posed to extend a perfect start to the season.

But the ex-Shabab Al-Ahli tactician had a different idea. Lourency and Mohammed Al-Junaibi — one of two 24th-minute substitutes as Zaragoza attempted to catalyze a comeback — exchanged goal contributions before the hour mark, moving Khor Fakkan within striking distance.

This wind was taken out of their sails by twin dismissals. Yet, Khor Fakkan and Zaragoza were not done.

Another replacement, Juninho, took advantage of uncharacteristic dallying from Morocco center-back Soufiane Bouftini in injury time to poke home the unlikeliest of levelers.

Cosmin conundrum continues at Sharjah

We’ve been here before.

Last season featured an unprecedented haul of four different cup trophies for Sharjah under Cosmin Olaroiu, but an underwhelming seventh-placed finish for a side that contained Miralem Pjanic, Kostas Manolas and Paco Alcacer.

This season has featured a gritty 3-1 AFC Champions League play-off victory in front of 80,898 partisan Tractor S.C. supporters and a creditable goalless group-stage opener at Qatar’s Al-Sadd. Yet in the topflight, they already sit six points off the pace in fifth after defeat at home to an Al-Ain team reduced to 10 men by Kouame Autonne’s 37th-minute dismissal.

This represents an intractable problem for Sharjah’s board.

Olaroiu’s reputation as a serial trophy hoarder is unmatched across Asia, but paltry league form is a growing concern.

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